Nowa Huta. Oranges just for Looking At
Sławomir Shuty

Growing up in Nowa Huta, “New [Steel] Mill” in Polish and the location of a vast steel works that was founded in 1949 to the east of Krakow, seems quite normal - until you reached puberty. Hometown Nowa Huta, revisited by the writer Sławomir Shuty: designed as a model city, populated by model people, this prime example of socialist planning turned out to be a den of thieves, gang fights and sexual excesses. The punk concerts were incubators of anarchy, pulling strongly at the iron curtain. It was the beginning of the end. Sławomir Shuty describes with passion the dissolute life led in the planned economy, with its quotas and its maniacal obsession with the heroic soviet peoples and in which the fanatical watchfulness got under everybody’s skin. Shuty describes a city which would seem more at home in a book of science fiction, but which ultimately has found a perfectly banal future, ruled by the laws of the market economy.

The Eighties in Nowa Huta were the crucible of my childhood. With hindsight, I can say it was a difficult time, but back then, for us as children, it all seemed completely normal; a reality unaffected then or ever by any underlying metamorphoses. It was what it was. We were delighted by any small things we managed to find in the shops. And that is why, when, after several hours in a long queue at the grocers, my brother managed to get hold of three oranges (not three kilos, but three single oranges) our joy was so great that we decided - or rather, the head of our family, my father, decided - not to consummate the act of consumption. The fruit was given a place of honour on top of the television, where it could brighten our view.

We would refresh ourselves on the oranges’ jolly and lively colours; we’d imagine their juicy flavour. No one dared to touch them there; father had a fearful right hand and because of this, the fruit withered, collapsed and moulded. The tinned ham met a similar fate. We postponed eating it until the next party, but as the next party was always somewhere in the future, the ham became an artefact whose place was indistinctly there in the future, too. Finally, in one year or other A.D., the tin with the ham became swollen and the only thing to do was throw it away.

We were not destined to try the aromatic ham and, that spring, we were not destined to experience the taste of an orange. It was no consolation that the neighbour’s garden held plums, apples, pears and nuts. In those days, Nowa Huta was surrounded by fields, forests and meadows. It hadn’t yet become a district of Krakow, it was a self-sufficient workers’ city that the Communist regime had built as an affront to the bourgeoisie intelligentsia. One has to admit, the builders and architects of Nowa Huta had some great and beautiful plans, the results of which, even today, a sharp-eyed observer will notice beneath their patina of grey. Wide streets modelled on Paris, broad promenades, ubiquitous green, with parks and squares, artificial lakes, high, spacious apartments copied from the urban terraces of bygone days, residential estates in the classical style where the functions of living space and fortress were united (for fear of a NATO invasion, the buildings were equipped with flanks and gun positions), on top of all this a long list of monuments, theatres, cinemas, our own Town Hall and a Market Square brimming with flowers. The plans could only be partially fulfilled. The central square, designed as an antique theatre, and the heart of Nowa Huta, was supposed to be crowned by a building devoted to the dramatic arts; on the opposite side, the proud spire of the Town Hall was supposed to rise up high into the sky, providing a panoramic view of old, conservative and reactionary Krakow. Unfortunately these, and several other grand schemes, were not realised for a very prosaic reason: at a crucial moment in the buoyant optimism of the socialist dawn, there wasn’t enough money. All the noble ideas were dropped as the necessity of building quickly and without a theme became clear. Within reach of the glorious old town of Kraków, dismal, grey settlements were erected in prefabricated concrete.

Our family of five filled a space amongst the bleak tower blocks, in a residential area that was once equipped with everything a person of socialist civilisation could need: crèches, nursery schools, primary and secondary schools, technical schools, general stores, grocery stores, chemists, House of Culture, Laundry service, tailors, cobblers, two sport centres, car parks and playgrounds. In this area, almost exclusively, I spent fifteen long years. Times were not easy. There were the infamous shortages in the shops; sugar, meat and essential goods were constantly rationed. But still we kept our heads above water. All the things one couldn’t buy we would produce for ourselves in a home-made style. In this way we made chocolate (assuming one of us had been lucky enough to buy so
me cocoa and milk powder, which were essential for the process), sweets made of sugar, melted over a gas ring (assuming sugar was available), and, easiest of all, home-made vodka. The trouble with that, though, was the dreadful smell it caused, which could quickly get the neighbours interested - and denunciations trendy in those days.

My parents originated from the mountains near Nowy Sącz, and when they arrived in Nowa Huta in one of the waves of settlement they became very busy people. My mother returned from work late in the afternoon; my father worked in three shifts at the nearby steelworks. Thanks to this, in our house, we never had a shortage of bread and we always had a warm meal. But my brother and I could also use this freedom and, with the keys tied around our necks, we would devote ourselves fully to our childlike imagination and our games; as often as not, we’d end up wounded and in tears.

Our favourite childhood entertainments included fighting battles with clods of earth amongst the piles of wire and stacks of concrete sections which belonged to building sites that had been started but never finished. We ran races between the rubble heaps - the hills, as we called them - which stood behind the dug up church square; we investigated the post-war bunkers and the cellars of deserted houses; we rummaged through rubbish bins. One could always find something interesting: empty tins, the packaging of chocolate from the West, shoe boxes or used needles (mostly in the bins near to the hospital).

In those days, playing war games was all the rage. In essence, the whole Nowa Huta district was in a permanent state of war. One estate fought against the next estate, one block against the next block, staircase fought against staircase and storey against storey. The conflicts were enacted using the most varied instruments: glass tubes with ammunition of dough, catapults made of metal hooks, bottle tops filled with sulphur and potash, bags of water dropped from above. However, these urban rivalries often found a release in battles fought on the football pitch. Football was a sport played by the masses, everywhere. In fact, it was probably the only sport which we played in our younger years, and our whole district of Nowa Huta played it with abandon. The matches organised often had widely varying formats: tournaments, meetings or sparring. These were mostly initiatives from below and every team spent all its free moments outside the classroom, honing its skills on black asphalt pitches set in the wider fields of concrete.

One should add that even if two disparate camps - whether estates, schools or classes - had been fighting open battles, during the football match, the rules of fair play were scrupulously applied. there was never any violence on the sports field, although things did get quite hot sometimes.

At a certain moment in time, the sad reality of the changing system caught up with our carefree football matches. A time came when our games would be over as soon as the concentration of tear gas in the air prevented a pain-free continuation of the game (this was the period of martial law, a time of conflict between the people’s power and the underground - the Solidarity movement). We moved then to the highest floors on our stairwell and watched the battlefield from that vantage point: the tanks which ploughed up the surrounding areas of grass; armoured cars which drove apart the crowds and sprayed them with red liquid which was hard to wash out of clothes; glowing smoke bombs which looked like fireworks, machine gun salvos, the percussion from grenade launchers; the grey tear gas fog, which squeezed into the apartments and pressed tears out of our eyes; the motorised police units chasing through the parks and gardens, abusing with their long white canes, all who opposed the government of the day.

The disturbances, as they were called by the regime, the riots, as we called them, ended in the night and in the morning, anyone who was young and still living went out to search for trophies of war. To this day, I still have my ammunition shells, smoke bombs and tear gas canisters; amongst the better items to find would be policeman’s shield or truncheon. You had to get up very early to undertake such a hunt. The later you started, the more small figures you would see creeping along the edge of the road, attracted by similar booty. Also, you had to get to school on time and classes began at seven-thirty.

Our primary school was - as is often the case in such circumstances - full of psychopathic teachers with damaged nerves. They implemented sadistic teaching plans, and would happily give us a hiding for a blunt pencil. With the help of these educational methods, we were all to be turned into human beings; it didn’t succeed for all of us, but what does that mean anyway, becoming a human? A person will always become a person, one way or another. There is no other option.

When one thinks back to these confrontations, one has to say that Nowa Huta was always, from the start of its existence, in an unsettled place; it was vilified by the inhabitants of Krakow as a hotbed of disease, crime and alcoholism. It has its own residents to thank for this bad reputation, workers from the outset, for whom the entertainments of the Krakow intelligentsia were something foreign, and who preferred to spend their free time in a folksier atmosphere, drinking beer in the nearby parks or downing something even stronger on the next best bench.

The most dangerous place, where the police would barricade themselves in their watch posts, was Mexico, as it had been named by the original builders of the city. Rapes, robberies, murders, illegal abortions were all commonplace here. Who knows now how many new born babies were swallowed by the foundations of the first Nowa Huta estates? It is a paradox that here, in a city created to meet the needs of the proletariat - the working masses so pampered by the regime - a discontent was born which would ultimately lead to the collapse of Communism.

If my whole - and I say this without irony - happy childhood was spent between four blocks of flats, the school and the buildings which comprised the square complex of shops, becoming a youth forced me to expand this terrarium by a whole new estate. This was where the secondary school for general education was located in which I was to continue my learning.

The next explorations of Nowa Huta began right where this progressive school left off. At that time, with a group of friends, I started living the artistic life; we were the bohemians of the prefab estates. This was based on our wanderings through the darkness of the sunken residential quarters filled with the warrior cries of the local football fans, fired up by cheap alcohol; it was social gatherings in the cellars of tower blocks or drinks on the runway of the old airfield (a Second World War leftover) and it was making music.

At the start of the Nineties, I and some people I knew, formed the group NH+. Inspired by the performances of German veterans of the underground scene, we tried to force the attractions of industrial music on the Polish public - with “force” being the operative word.

When they were still very new, we were using samples which we recorded in the quarters of Nowa Huta: the squeaking of metal doors, motors starting, drills working, dogs howling, anvils and coffee mills. Our joyful creativity was met at the time by a complete lack of comprehension. The audiences at concerts reacted with shock, shaking their heads as they asked whether these guys on the stage actually intended to play any music, or if they were just doing some repairs.

At some later stage, the centre of my interest moved to downtown Krakow. In the company of friends we would make excursions on the look out for love and happiness. In those days this was dismal exercise. Apart from the cellar parties, there was practically no nightlife in Nowa Huta. The expeditions to the main square in Krakow often ended - because of the difficult traffic situation and our small wallets - with a two hour night walk home. But that’s a different story.

Just as with any other place in Poland since 1989, when the first free elections were held and as a result Solidarity came to power, Nowa Huta is subject to constant transition. One is reminded of its earlier lustre by the neglected facades of the residential blocks in the classical tradition, the details filled with architectural pathos, ancient neon signs, the restaurants "Jubilatka" ("The bejewelled") and "Stylowa" ("The Stylish") serving as memorials to a livelier past, or finally, by the monstrous steelworks combine and its surroundings, looking like a cyber-punk city of the future.

Both the gorgeous cinemas "Świt" and "Światowid" have failed to survive the competition with the modern leisure complexes which have spring up near by. One is now a casino, the other a handling space for imported furniture. Renovation and insulation work, carried out in good faith, often results in the classical blocks with the attractive fronts losing their character as they are reduced to run-of-the-mill blocks like those which fill the outskirts of town. The ground floors of the socialist-realist blocks are now taken over by banks, pizzerias, fast-food restaurants, shops selling household goods and kebab stands. Nowa Huta is losing its character as city exclusively for workers. It is becoming yet another sleepy suburb of Krakow.

Perceptions of the city are also changing: whereas not long ago, nobody wanted to move into the areas of Nowa Huta, today, the city is experiencing a second youth; it is becoming a centre of fashion and it is now great to be able to say one live here. More and more young people are coming up with creative initiatives through which, specifically in this place, they find themselves. New theatres are opening, small cinema clubs, the most prominent painters of the younger generation have their ateliers here. There is now a possibility that new blood is coursing here which will not allow the architectural and historical tradition of the place to be surrendered completely.
For me, a human from Huta, who cut his artistic teeth here, I have very different things in my head. I dream of a rural cabin, buried in obscurity, a long, long way form here or any other city.

Born in 1973, Sławomir Shuty studied at the Academy of Economics in Krakow. He is a writer, photographer and producer of underground films as well as being manager and main character in the event cycle “The Circus from Huta”. He has published two collections of short stories “Wonderful new Taste” (1999) and “Blood sugar level: normal” (2002), a novel “Stutter” (2001) and was the initiator of the Polish hypertext-novel “Blo” ( In 2004 he published the novel “Stack” which was awarded the “Paszport Polityki” prize for its “literary ear, its passion and the courage in portraying Polish reality.” Sławomir Shuty has published works in Raster, Lampa i Iskra Boża and BruLion and also works for Ha!art. His film “Luna” was the winner of TVP2’s fourth Festival of Independent Cinema in June 2006. Sławomir Shuty comes from Nowa Huta and lives in Krakow.

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